The Long View: Why Bill Clinton Should Resign

John wrote this seventeen years ago. When he re-posted it in in the sidebar of his post of October 10th, 2002, he said this:

Here is an old essay recommending President Clinton's resignation. How well has my reasoning aged, I wonder?

I wasn't old enough to vote when Bill Clinton ran for president. At the time, I doubt I would have voted for him. Now, I'm not so sure. Over time, I have started to respect the political acumen of the old reprobate. More interesting perhaps, is that you can see that John started to make much the same criticisms of George W. Bush as you find here about Bill Clinton.

It also worth looking back at all-consuming political controversies twenty years later, and find out how much we really care.

Why Bill Clinton Should Resign

by John J. Reilly
I am writing this on September 18, 1998. (It's a Friday, and a slow afternoon.) To my own considerable surprise, I came to the conclusion today that President Bill Clinton should resign his office. I have no particular reason to believe that this will be a day to live in infamy: certainly I have heard nothing on the news yet that would in itself justify this change of heart on my part. Nevertheless, today something snapped. The arguments which to me had always weighed in favor of Bill Clinton serving his full second term now seem less substantial than the dangers of his remaining.
As a preliminary matter, let me note that I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, and I am still a registered Democrat. I voted for him because it seemed to me that his opponent, incumbent President George Bush, had no particular plans for a second term. It also seemed to me that Bush's gimmicky campaigns of 1988 and 1992 had done a great deal to dumb down American national politics. (Remember the visit to the flag factory?) Clinton, in contrast, had been the subject of mildly approving magazine articles in the prestige press for several years. He was a policy wonk with a sense of humor. He was even a babyboomer, just a few years older than I am. Despite the recession at that time, the world appeared on the whole to be in more satisfactory shape than at any time since before the First World War. History had cut America enough slack that we could afford to allow a somewhat unknown quantity in the White House. The worst he could do was nothing, after all, and it was arguable that nothing was what needed to be done.
It is precisely because there is now unambiguous work for the president to do that he has to go. He never understood the job. The core functions of the presidency concern war, fiscal policy and law enforcement. The first two often require rapid decisions that are both timely and made under conditions of great stress. All three require strategic thinking and the ability to set priorities. Bill Clinton cannot do these things. It is not even clear that he has ever understood that he has to try.
This is a man who continues revising his State of the Union addresses as he walks up the aisle to deliver them. He spends his time making pronouncements about elementary school education, an area in which the federal government has relatively little authority, while his personnel policies drive the cream of the officer corps out of the military. His idea of an "economic program" in an era of labor shortages continues to be antirecessionary job training schemes. The problem is not that all his ideas are bad, it is that they should be secondary or tertiary concerns of his office.
So Bill Clinton is incompetent. Is that reason enough to remove him from the presidency? Of course not. There are countries with constitutions designed to make changes of government very quickly in response to popular opinion, but the United States is not one of them. This on the whole is a good thing. Terms of office set by law rather than by popular enthusiasm allow for a degree of long-term thinking that would otherwise be impossible. The constitutional remedy for incompetence in office is patience. The incompetents can be voted out. In Bill Clinton's case, he cannot even run for a third term. There has to be a very good reason not to let nature take its course in this instance, too.
Sure, Bill Clinton is a liar, he is a philanderer, he is an ignoble person. He is not just self-centered, a quality that sometimes gives people a measure of integrity, but selfish to a degree that staggers belief. He is also notably vindictive. Bill Clinton has always had a tendency to respond to opposition by persons less powerful than himself by blackening their reputations. It may be that the stories his agents are now floating about the personal lives of hostile members of Congress will finally do him in.
Even these qualities do not merit eviction from office. I have never been in sympathy with the campaign of litigation that has been waged against the president these many years. It has always seemed to me to be payback from the Republicans for Watergate, just as Watergate was payback from the Democrats for the conviction of Alger Hiss. The presidency has yet to recover completely from the Watergate era. The one service that Bill Clinton could perform for his country, I thought, was to survive these attacks. This would have provided some evidence that this kind of politics does not work, and so perhaps would have broken the cycle of prosecution and counter prosecution. Well, now maybe we must wait to end the cycle. It is urgent that Bill Clinton be replaced now.
Bill Clinton is not just a failed president, like Herbert Hoover or James Buchanan. Failed presidents are simply people whose policies ceased to be credible long before their terms of office ended. Clinton presents the far more distressing spectacle of a president who is no longer credible as a person. No message to Congress, no speech to the people, no communication to another head of government that this man makes can any longer be taken altogether seriously. He cannot do his job, and this at a time when he has a serious job to do. Most of the threats that should be engaging his attention relate to foreign affairs, precisely the area in which he began his presidency by proclaiming his lack of interest.
Because of this man's negligence, a world financial crisis that would certainly have been serious now shows every sign of causing a collapse as severe as that of the 1930s. His dissimulation and wishful thinking may be about to reverse the outcome of the Gulf War of 1990-1991. His reluctance to focus on Russia early in his administration is as responsible as any other outside act for the failure of that country to develop a real market economy. He has threatened minor countries around the world with military force, and then backed away when his bluff was called. He has persecuted military culture from the first days of his administration, and refused to construct missile defenses against dangers that only his administration fails to see.
Any other president would have seized on threats like these as the means to save himself. FDR's tireless public display of economic management during the Great Depression, Woodrow Wilson's transformation from a marginal social reformer to a hugely popular war chief, these are the roles that could have provided Clinton with ample armor to defend himself against the ever growing number of condemnations of his character. Instead, his reaction has been to continue to emphasize those largely symbolic issues to which he dedicated his presidency after his party lost the congressional elections of 1994. He talks about getting back to "the business of the American people," which apparently consists of minor education reforms, unspecified changes to the Social Security old age pension system, and extraordinarily arcane modifications of the regulations governing HMOs (health maintenance organizations).
Please understand that I am not expressing disappointment that he does not manufacture a crisis in order to rescue himself from his current difficulties. No manufacturing is necessary: there are several in the "In-Box" on his desk as I write this. What I am suggesting is that he either cannot recognize a crisis when he sees one, or that he does not know how to mobilize his government to address the sort of issue for which he is actually paid to deal.
I have come to recommend resignation only with great reluctance and more than a little fear. If President Clinton does resign, that would do no more than help to ensure that certain extreme evils are prevented for the next two years. The loss of a war in the Middle East or East Asia, a prolonged worldwide depression, the reemergence of ideologically aggressive totalitarians states, all these things can still be avoided. A working American presidency would not make this certain, of course, but it is a necessary condition. None of this changes the fact that the resignation itself will be a great evil. It will damage the institution of the presidency and vindicate the conduct of politics by prosecution and slander. It will even serve to undermine that increasingly frail flower, the legitimacy of the federal government of the United States and the Constitution on which it rests. I see no way these things can be avoided.
There are grimmer possibilities. Clinton might be impeached by the House and tried by the Senate. That would be the worst of all possible worlds, since the federal government would be paralyzed during the lengthy proceedings, and the presidency would be diminished no matter their outcome. It is also possible that Clinton will merely continue in office, exercising power incompetently or not at all, gradually reducing all national politics to the contempt in which he is held personally. If that happens, his crepuscular final year and a half in office might resemble the sad end of the Hoover Administration after 1930, but with this difference. The United States is much more central to the world's economy, military balance and cultural life than it was in the 1930s. If the rest of the planet falls into confusion, the United States will not fail to feel it, and this time it will not take ten years.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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